Unity Is at the Heart of Christ’s Desire for the Church

Obstacle to Christianity: Legalism

by Lyneta Smith

I love traditions. Every fall, I find the cutest pumpkins and pumpkin-spiced candles to cozy up my home. I also buy a couple sugar pumpkins to bake and puree to make pumpkin pie from scratch. All afternoon, the smell of ginger and cloves mingles with bright orange pumpkin puree, tantalizing us with promises of fresh whipped cream and buttery crust.

I love this ritual so much that my family would probably try to get me psychiatric help if I were to forgo it.

Humankind is naturally drawn to traditions—we find comfort, stability, and security in conventions for everything from the way we celebrate holidays to the way we worship.

Strange as it sounds to me, I’ve encountered people who do not like pumpkin pie. (Maybe that’s you?) While the anti-pumpkin stance is heretical in our household, I realize it’s not a character defect; it’s only a preference.

But the line gets a lot fuzzier when we’re talking about following religious traditions versus obeying God.

How do we tell the difference?

Even Jesus encountered criticism in Jerusalem when the Pharisees noticed His disciples ate with unwashed hands (Mark 7:5).

Jesus responded with a charge of hypocrisy and quoted Isaiah 29:13. He continued, “‘Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.’ He was also saying to them, ‘You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition’” (Mark 7:8-9 NASB).

There’s clearly a difference in Jesus’ mind between traditions of men and God’s commands. Putting traditions on par with commands is legalism.

But sometimes, especially after growing up in a denomination with strong traditions, it’s hard to delineate between the two. Let’s consider some ways to tell the difference.


  1. Is it clearly and directly addressed in the Bible? Certain issues are direct commands God intended us to obey. In Mark 7:10, Jesus called out the Pharisees who were criticizing His disciples’ violation of the cleansing traditions of the day. He reminded the Pharisees that they weren’t obeying the command to honor their father and mother.
  2. Do you feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit? God sometimes speaks to us through His Word and prayer about specific issues in our lives. When we seek wisdom for major decisions, such as purchases, school choice, or home location, going against a clear call from the Holy Spirit is just as disobedient as violating one of the ten commandments.
  3. Does it follow the Golden Rule? Jesus taught us how to treat each other: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NASB).


  1. Issues not clearly addressed by the Bible. Some traditions, like worship styles, are indirectly addressed, and so we must be careful to parse the verses in context, keeping the initial purpose of the text in mind.
  2. Issues not mentioned at all in the Bible. Modern technology and other cultural issues (e.g., clothing style, playing cards, and modern music) aren’t specifically mentioned, but they are sometimes unhealthily regulated by religious leaders. Putting these matters on the same plane as the commandments to love God and each other diminish the power of God’s Word in a believer’s life.
  3. Unclear passages of the Bible. Even Peter agreed that Paul was difficult to understand sometimes (2 Peter 3:15-16). I have witnessed an entire local Bible study (of over 100 women) disintegrate because of a disagreement over 1 Corinthians 11 on the issue of head covering. The leadership valued being right over unity.


Because there’s no way for every believer to agree on unclear or unaddressed passages, the only way to overcome the obstacle of legalism is unity.

We must distinguish between what is essential (clearly laid out by the Bible) and what is preferential. Calling a sin a sin is good, but calling a preference a sin goes against the heart of Jesus as we see it in Mark 7. 

Jesus’ heart for His disciples (and for us) is reflected in the very last prayer He prayed before His arrest, torture, and crucifixion. He prayed, “that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (John 17:23 NASB, emphasis mine).

Our service to God either reflects the Pharisees’ service—neglecting God’s command (especially compassion) because we’re so busy pursuing traditions—or it’s like the sweet aroma of perfectly measured spices in a pumpkin custard. 

© Copyright 2018 by Lyneta Smith


Lyneta Smith is a speaker, writer, and Bible study aficionado. She and her husband relish their quiet empty nest near Nashville, Tennessee, and regular spirited family game nights with their adult daughters. She spends her free time sewing and meeting the demands of a clingy Boston terrier and an entitled tortoiseshell cat. Find out more at www.lynetasmith.com.


This post is a part of our series called “Overcoming the Obstacles of the Christian Life,” and it’s our second guest post in the series. If you missed the previous posts, click the links below to check them out:


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legalism, obstacles, unity, faith, the word of God, Overcoming the Obstacles of the Christian Life, Mark, Unity Is at the Heart of Christ’s Desire for the Church, Lyneta Smith, Katy Kauffman, Lighthouse Bible Studies

Comments (2)

  • anon

    Thank you for emphasizing that in areas where the Bible is clear, go with that. I have people I know who think that it is fine to do things clearly marked out in Scripture as sin becaue it is inconvenient to today's society. In those areas, the Bible has the final say versus social acceptability.

    Oct 18, 2018
  • anon

    Your post is so important to help us distinguish between God's commands and people's preference. You've provided clear examples to help us understand the challenges that arise when these areas clash. Love your solution--if we are united in our love for Christ and our desire to follow His commands, we can work through those issues that can tear a church family apart. Thank you, Lyneta.

    Oct 18, 2018

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